My novel manuscript is with those who’ve kindly agreed to be its first readers. A potential publisher is taking a look at my poetry collection manuscript. So, for the first time in a long while, I have gone back to my first, and perhaps best, love: writing short stories.
It won’t be news to anyone who has followed this blog that I like to have a couple of projects on the go at once, but I don’t usually work on a couple of short stories at the same time. At the moment, though, I’m alternating between writing two stories. One’s long(ish), one’s short(ish). One’s light-hearted, one’s more severe. One’s science fiction, one’s literary/mainstream fiction.
And I’m here to tell you that the science fiction story is a lot harder to write than the mainstream story. This doesn’t mean that the science fiction story is better, or worse, or more valid, that the mainstream story. Both might be good – or both might be dreadful. But it’s certainly harder work to write.
Why? It’s because so much more has to be packed into the SF story – which is, admittedly, the shorter one – to make it work. A story set in the world with which most of its readership is familiar doesn’t have to spend a lot of time in scene-setting, in finding ways to make the world in which it is set clear to the reader without overburdening that self-same reader with exposition.
There are only so many words to go around in a short story, and the more that are spent cuing the reader in to what distinguishes the world of the story from the world they are familiar with, the less there are to delineate character and advance the action.
This won’t be news to speculative fiction writers, of course, but it may be to writers and readers of literary fiction. One of the criticisms often advanced of SF is that it suffers from poor characterisation. To the extent to which that is true, it may simply be because only the very finest writers of SF – the Ursula Le Guins, the Gene Wolfes – can show the reader a new or changed world, keep the story moving, and create memorable characters at the same time.